As I gaze into the darkness of Christmas Past, I seem to remember reviewing television programmes for newspapers for about 200 years, before moving into full-time programme-making (thus becoming a sort of poacher turned gamekeeper). I also recall that, when I stopped being a critic, television suddenly improved, thereby demonstrating the sheer futility of my former profession, the sad equivalent of me spending my days heckling trains that had already left the station.
I realise now that it's previewers who have the real power, because they can at least influence what other people will watch or avoid. I've been asked to preview the Christmas schedules, but I should warn you at the outset that I undertake the task as a humanist republican who has never had any time for the religious nonsense that permeates the festive season.
It wasn't three wise men who put me straight on this, but one wise cynic who, many years ago, told me that: "I've seen the actual skeleton of baby Jesus, so it must all be true," then added "do you know that the word 'gullible' is not in the Oxford English Dictionary?" and left me to draw my own conclusions. What follows is a humanist republican's attempt to slalom through the Xmas TV listings, highlighting the worst programmes that might be inflicted upon you, and offering built-in antidotes.
No other TV programme is so widely listened-to and so little watched as Carols From Kings (BBC2, 4.45pm), as "traditional" cooks throughout the country switch on the TV, then start putting their Brussels sprouts on to boil for next day's lunch. The mixture of pomp, ritual and sublime music makes this an unmissable broadcast and always reminds me of a limerick, taught to me by a Cambridge don: "I knew a young fellow from Kings, who cared not for whores and such things, his height of desire, was a boy in the choir, with a bottom like jelly on springs."
With luck, there will be a new setting by the estimable John Rutter, although sometimes they feature an arrangement by one of his many imitators, in which case I shall cry out: "I can't believe it's not Rutter."
After so much piety, I shall flush the baby Jesus nonsense out of my system by watching the hilariously scurrilous Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas Special (BBC1, 10.15pm). Created by and starring a genuine comedic genius, Brendan O'Carroll, this is just-about the funniest, cleverest and most seemingly-effortless comedy on British television, deconstructing the classic structures of conventional sitcom and adding great clumps of Rabelaisian filth.
A Christmas Carol (C5, 4.10pm) stars the great Alastair Sim, giving the finest portrayal of Scrooge ever committed to celluloid. But if you prefer a modern animated version, then BBC1 is showing the splendid 2009 Disney reworking at 6.45pm, with Jim Carrey openly paying homage to Alastair in his vocal performance. Incidentally, I am currently working on my own reggae version of this classic tale, featuring Bob and Jacob Marley.
You'll have to slalom like an Olympic champion through the TV and radio schedules over the Yuletide period to avoid the sight of Aled Jones, who presents Christmas Carols on ITV at 10.15pm. There's a nauseating aura of piety that emanates from professional presenters of religious programmes and the digestive problems caused by the Christmas stuffing will be nothing compared to the way my gastric juices will attempt to consume my lower intestines, should I catch a glimpse of him on screen. This whiff of sanctimony amongst religious presenters can be traced back to Harry Secombe who astonishingly, as presenter of ITV's Highway, was the highest-paid performer on British television. Well, that's what happens when you have God as your agent, I suppose.
BBC1 has a Midnight Mass from Leeds Cathedral, but on ITV1 the midnight religious service that was once a fixture in their schedule has now disappeared. Instead there's a repeat of the vapid Jonathan Ross Show which, as it happens, is more-or-less guaranteed to make me fall to my knees, gaze heavenwards and call on Jesus by His name.
As an antidote, you could try Stephen Fry: Gadget Man (C4, 8.30pm), which looks at Christmas technology, past and present. Cynics might say that it's about time someone invented a gadget to prevent Mr Fry from appearing on our screens with such remorseless regularity, but hypocrites like me have only good things to say about him, because even though he spreads himself so thinly that he is known chez Lewis-Smith as Mr Marmite, I may want to use him on one of my programmes soon and therefore wish to keep in his good books. Stephen, you are wonderful.
Friday Night Dinner (C4, 10.30pm) features a fictional Jewish family from North London, and I'm still not sure whether the programme is comedy or tragedy. Either way though, it's increasingly watchable, unlike Rolf's Animal Clinic (C5, 6pm), about which I have only one word to offer: didgereedon't. As for Michael Buble: Home for the Holidays (Sky 1, 5pm), take the DNA of Frank Sinatra, graft on Van Gogh's ear for music and enough sugar to induce a diabetic coma in the entire nation, and you'll have the measure of the man.
Making television programmes as I do, you probably think that I'd be very careful about insulting those who are high up in the management structure of large broadcasting organisations. Not a bit of it. I once nearly had a fist fight with the Controller of BBC1 and I've always believed in biting the hand that feeds me right up to the armpit. So it's without any compunction that I say that pretty well all of the comedic output on Sky 1 since Stuart Murphy took control has been marginally less funny than being born dead with cancer.
Trollied ( Sky 1, 9pm) is a disgraceful waste of a large budget and some talented actors, while An Idiot Abroad (Sky 1, 11pm) contains not even a homeopathic trace of humour and is re-commissioned solely because the ratings-boosting name of Ricky Gervais is attached to it. In this latest series, the addition of the dwarf Warwick Davis allows for an endless series of obvious height jokes to be made, something that is apparently deemed acceptable because (according to Gervais) Warwick likes playing such roles. Of course he does, because getting very well paid. I'd shovel s*** naked and smile while I was doing it if I was paid enough, wouldn't you? That doesn't make it dignified. Or funny.
For genuine (albeit unintentional) laughs I suggest you try Top of the Pops: 1977 (BBC4, 11.05pm), a sort of "Where's Wally" with dubious presenters. Once we innocently tuned in to see the dreadful clothing, now we watch to see the performers trying to avoid slipping as they mime to their own latest hit. And try to catch Richard E Grant's Hotel Secrets (Sky Atlantic, 9pm), not only for its excellent and witty insights into how the world's luxury hotels are run, but also as an antidote to Christmas with Aled Jones on Sky Arts 2 at 4pm. How can any presenter be as relentlessly bland and unctuous as he is? If only the News of the World were still publishing and published an exposé featuring him hanging upside-down in a hotel room, dressed only in a leather gimp mask and thong. That's just-about the only thing that might ever make me warm to the man.
You may have noticed that a pattern is emerging, namely that the best comedy is mostly to be found in non-comedy programmes, and nowhere is this truer than in Sings Bee Gees (BBC4, 11.05pm). Indeed, it's said that when Maurice Gibb died, the hospital staff mistook the high-pitched squeal of his life-support machine as he flat-lined for a sudden impromptu rendition of Night Fever.
Equally hilarious is the news that The Queen (all main channels, 3pm) will be shown this year in 3D, thereby paradoxically adding another dimension to a programme that nevertheless remains utterly devoid of all depth and breadth. What are the Windsors but an unnecessary relic of feudal times and a shameful waste of public money? And don't give me that spiel about them being good for tourism. Does that means no tourists ever go to republics like France or the US? Or if they do, do they climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty, look down on Manhattan, and say: "Well, it's a lovely view, but the lack of a monarch spoils it somehow"?
Thankfully, there are some genuinely brilliant comedies on offer. Arrested Development (FX, 4am) remains one of the funniest, fastest, and sharpest comedies ever to emanate from America. And a new episode of The Royle Family (BBC1, 9.45pm) reminds me that, according to the BBC's website, "In 2001 Caroline Aherne announced her retirement from TV." Like Frank Sinatra before her, she then discovered that the only thing a celebrity can do after announcing their retirement is to make a comeback. I'm glad she did, though.
I haven't seen a preview of Paul O'Grady: For The Love of Dogs (ITV1, 6pm), but as it's coming from Battersea Dogs Home and being broadcast at Christmas teatime, I presume this likeable presenter won't be showing us footage of homeless mutts being gassed. No, this will surely be an enjoyably Panglossian exercise in Yuletide Gemütlichkeit, convincing us for a few comforting (but deluded) hours that there is no cruelty or suffering in the world.
And finally, don't miss Comedy Central's double bill of South Park on Boxing Day (9pm), in which Mr Hanky, the animated Christmas Poo, will remind us of all the real-life turds that those four-legged animals leave in public parks and pavements for our delectation. This is an all-singing, all-dancing and all-defecating masterpiece, the ultimate antidote to all the schmaltz and tinsel available by the tankerful in the rest of the Christmas TV schedules.
A collection of Victor Lewis-Smith's TV Reviews is published this week by Badastral Books, and is available on Amazon and Kindle.Reuse content